The Walnut Street Theater is seeking a one-time gift of more than $10 million to complete a capital campaign for the long-planned and pandemic-delayed expansion of its downtown home.
The benefactor would be offered the naming rights to the existing main stage, auditorium, or possibly the entire Center City theater complex, which has long billed itself as America’s oldest performing arts venue. . The words Walnut Street Theater would likely be part of any new name, said Walnut chief executive Mark D. Sylvester.
“The Walnut Street Theater is a National Historic Landmark,” he said. in an interview. “The identity is strong. But corporate or philanthropic opportunities to name have become popular in the arts.
In a statement, Walnut Board Chairman Scott Rankin said, “The theater ultimately belongs to the people, and so the Walnut Street Theater name will always live on.”
The planned cost of the project has risen to $48 million, an increase of $9 million since it was announced in 2019, according to Sylvester. This estimate covers the financing and construction of additional space for performances, rehearsals, classes and catering operations – to be built on part of a surface car park adjacent to the ticketing hall.
The new price reflects inflation which has driven up the cost of construction, higher financing costs and an annual increase of approximately $1 million that had been factored into earlier projections.
The theater had raised about $30 million, and “we were six weeks away from groundbreaking” when the pandemic hit in March 2020, Sylvester said.
The president and production artistic director of The Walnut, Bernard Harvard, now in its 40th season, has long considered the expansion. “It had been planned for decades and everything was ready to go,” Sylvester said.
But then, like other performing arts organizations nationwide, the Walnut closed for more than a year as the pandemic raged. The theater reopened in 2021 with a shorter season, a smaller audience, and a subscription base that dropped from 45,000 to 19,000.
“The most important mission we have right now is to get the audience back into the seats,” Sylvester said.
He described the opening night of Rocky, the musical on the main stage Wednesday as “definitely one of the most exciting of my 29 seasons here…the audience went nuts.”
But he also said the “perception of crime in the city” is a concern for cultural organizations in Philadelphia and other cities.
“It’s something that we as a community need to work together to address,” Sylvester said, adding that the Walnut has beefed up its own security and is coordinating its efforts with the Downtown District as well as the Philadelphia police.
A new naming right is already in place at the Walnut: The proposed 400-seat theater in the round, a key element of the expansion plan, will be called the Matt Garfield Stage in honor of the city’s longtime patron of the arts, who donated $3 million to the project.
Another downtown performance venue – formerly the Merriam Theatre, and even before that, the Schubert – was renamed the Miller Theater last March, following the donation of an undisclosed sum by arts patron Alan B. Miller.
Michael DelBene, president and CEO of Welcome America Inc., the nonprofit organization that produces Wawa Welcome America events, said naming opportunities work well as long as the donor and recipient have an agreement to ‘spirit.
“It’s really about saying, we’re going to allow a company or an individual to put their name on our organization, but don’t let the name change who we are as an organization,” he said. declared.
DelBene was vice president of business development at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts when the groundwork was laid for the center’s partnership with TD Bank, and the main performance venue was renamed the TD Pavilion at the Mann.
“An expanded Walnut Street Theater is an expanded offering to residents and visitors to the Philadelphia area,” he said. “It’s nothing but a positive thing.”
Sylvester said the Walnut “is not just about putting on plays” and noted that the project will “allow us to expand our educational programs.”
The theater plans to change schools virtual-to-in-person partnership program next year with Forrest, Southwark, Lea and Ziegler elementary schools in the city. Performances at the Walnut Street Theater for Kids resumed in 2021.
No breakthrough date for the expansion has been set. “This project is going to happen,” Sylvester said. “But we need to raise funds to complete it.”